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Photo Credit: Dammin Senerat

Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY

traditional Sri Lankan dance Staten Island, New York
Photo Credit: Dammin Senerat
Photo Credit: Dammin Senerat

In recent years, the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island has earned the moniker “Little Sri Lanka,” in honor of the vibrant immigrant community that has developed in this New York City borough since the first Sri Lankan family arrived in the late 1970s. Now numbering about 10,000 people, this is believed to be the largest Sri Lankan enclave in the United States, attracting crowds to its excellent restaurants and, more recently, receiving enthusiastic notice for introducing American audiences to traditional Kandyan dance through the work of the Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY.

Classically trained in the Kandyan tradition by the Chitrasena school, Tanya DeSilva started a dance school for young girls in her Staten Island attic in 1992, shortly after she emigrated from Sri Lanka. From these modest beginnings grew the Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY, which today trains approximately 50 students in Kandyan dance and drumming traditions. Kandyan, one of three national dances of the island nation of Sri Lanka, is a centuries-old tradition in the central hill region of Kandy; because of this geographical association, it is also referred to as udarata natum, or “upcountry dance.” The dance developed out of a healing ritual called kohomba kankariya, which according to legend was used to rid a king of a mysterious illness. The classical dance repertoire also includes animal tales, courtship rituals, stories about Buddha, and other ritual and narrative dances. The Kandyan style is characterized by a calm, central core; intricate footwork, flowing arms, and acrobatic leaps; and a percussive, stomping beat accentuated by the jingle of the silambu (bells) on dancers’ ankles. Originally performed only by men, female dancers and teachers became integral to the tradition starting in the 1940s.

Dilhan Pinnagoda is the troupe’s current artistic director and master choreographer. Under his leadership, in 2014 the school presented the first Pahim Path Mangalya ever danced in the United States; they have since presented another. The Pahim Path Mangalya, named for the ceremonial headdress presented to the dancers, is a performance that marks a dancer’s attainment of mastery. The Pahim Path Mangalya not only celebrates the dancers’ significant achievements, but also publicly demonstrates the community’s commitment to nurture and share their Sri Lankan traditions.

The Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY’s performing troupe consists of experienced dancers ranging from 15-25 years of age, accompanied on drums by their teachers, Dilhan Pinnagoda and the master drummer Uthpala Eroshan. “Although we were born and raised here, we’re still connected to our roots,” explains Sachindara Navinna, 22, who has been with the troupe since she began imitating her older sister at age four. “Dancing has built me into a different person—it is about being humble, down to earth, disciplined.”

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